French translation here
After being blown away by director Christopher Nolan’s Inception, I decided to give his Batman Begins (2005) another chance. The first time I saw this film, I did not like it. Not one bit. I must have been distracted, because this time I loved it. Nolan breaks with the campy style of earlier Batman films, focusing on character development and motivations, which makes Batman Begins and its sequel The Dark Knight both psychologically dark and intellectually and emotionally compelling.
Nolan’s casts are superb. Although I was disappointed to learn that David Boreanaz—the perfect look, in my opinion—had been cast as Batman right up until the part was given to Christian Bale, it is hard to fault Bale’s Batman. He may be too pretty. But he has the intelligence, emotional complexity, and heroic physique needed to bring Batman to life. (Adam West, Michael Keaton, and George Clooney were jokes, but Val Kilmer was an intriguing choice.)
Batman Begins also stars Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Rutger Hauer, and Morgan Freeman as one of those brilliant black inventors and mentors for confused whites so common in science fiction. In The Dark Knight, Bale, Caine, Oldman, Murphy, and Freeman return, and the immortal Heath Ledger is The Joker.
Batman Begins falls into three parts. In the first part we cut between Bruce Wayne in China and flashbacks of the course that brought him there. I despise the cliché that passes for psychology in popular culture today, namely that a warped psyche can be traced back to a primal trauma. So I was annoyed to learn that young Bruce Wayne became obsessed with bats when he fell down a well and was swarmed by them, and that he became a crime-fighter because his wealthy parents were gunned down in front of him by a mugger. Haunted by these traumas, billionaire Bruce Wayne ended up dropping out of Princeton to immerse himself in the criminal underworld, eventually ending up in a brutal Chinese prison.
Wayne is released by the mysterious Mr. Ducat—played by the imposing and charismatic Liam Neeson—who oversees his training in a mysterious Himalayan fortress run by “The League of Shadows,” an ancient order of warrior-ascetics led by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). The League follows the Traditional teaching that history moves in circles, beginning with a Golden Age and declining into a Dark Age, which then collapses and gives place to a new Golden Age. The mission of the League of Shadows is to appear when a civilization has reached the nadir of decadence and is about to fall—and then give it a push. (Needless to say, they do not have a website or a Facebook page. Nor can one join them by sending in a check.)
The League’s training is both physical and spiritual. The core of the spiritual path is to confront and overcome one’s deepest fears using a hallucinogen derived from a Himalayan flower. In a powerful and poetic scene of triumph, Bruce Wayne stands unafraid in the midst of a vast swarm of bats. The first time I watched this, I missed the significance of this transformation, which is an implicit critique of “trauma” psychology, for traumas are shown to be ultimately superficial compared with the heroic strength to stand in the face of the storm. It is, moreover, perfectly consistent with the conviction that nature is ultimately more powerful than nurture.
Bruce Wayne accepts the League’s training but in the end rejects its mission. He thinks that decadence can be reversed. He believes in progress. He and Ducat fight. Ra’s al Ghul is killed. The fortress explodes. Wayne escapes, saving Ducat’s life. Then he calls for his private jet and returns to Gotham City.
In act two, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman. Interestingly enough, Batman is much closer to Nietzsche’s idea of the “Superman” than the Superman character is. Superman isn’t really a man to begin with. He just looks like us. His powers are just “given.” But a Nietzschean superman is a man who makes himself more than a mere man. Bruce Wayne conquers nature, both his own nature and the world around him. As a man, he makes himself more than a man.
But morally speaking, Batman is no Übermensch, for he remains enslaved by the sentimental notion that every human life has some sort of innate value. He does not see that this morality negates the worth of his own achievement. A Batman can only be suffered if he serves his inferiors. Universal human rights—equality—innate dignity—the sanctity of every sperm: these ideas license the subordination and ultimately the destruction of everything below—or above—humanity. They are more than just a death sentence for nature, as Pentti Linkola claims. They are a death sentence for human excellence, high culture, anything in man that points above man.
Of course Batman’s humanistic ethics has limits, particularly when he makes a getaway in the Batmobile, crushing and crashing police cars, blasting through walls, tearing over rooftops. Does Bruce Wayne plan to reimburse the good citizens of Gotham, or is there a higher morality at work here after all?
In act two, Batman begins to clean up Gotham City and uncovers and unravels a complex plot. In act three, we learn who is behind it: The League of Shadows. We learn that Neeson’s character Ducat is the real Ra’s al Ghul, and he and the League have come to a Gotham City tottering on the brink of chaos—to send it over the edge. Of course Batman saves the day, and Gotham is allowed to limp on, sliding deeper into decadence as its people lift their eyes toward the shining mirages of hope and eternal progress that seduce and enthrall their champion as well.
Batman Begins is a dark and serious movie, livened with light humor. It is dazzling to the eye. The script was co-authored by Christopher Nolan and Jewish writer-director David Goyer. There are a few politically correct touches, such as Morgan Freeman (although I find it impossible to dislike Morgan Freeman) and the little fact that one of Wayne’s ancestors was an abolitionist, but nothing that really stinks.
Batman Begins touches on many of the themes that I discerned in my reviews of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy and Hellboy II. Again, the villains seem to subscribe to the Traditionalist, cyclical view of history; they hold that the trajectory of history is decline; they believe that we inhabit a Dark Age and that a Golden Age will dawn only when the Dark Age is destroyed; and they wish to lend their shoulders to the wheel of time. That which is falling, should be pushed.
The heroes, by contrast, believe in progress. Thus they hold that a better world can be attained by building on the present one.
This is a rather elegant and absolutely radical opposition, which can be exploited to create high stakes dramatic conflict. What fight can be more compelling than the people who want to destroy the world versus the people who want to save it?
This raises the obvious question: Who in Hollywood has been reading René Guénon and Julius Evola—or, in the case of Hellboy, Savitri Devi and Miguel Serrano? For somebody inside the beast clearly understands that a weaponized Traditionalism is the ultimate revolt against the modern world.
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